‘We’re doing the surgery to save your wife’s life, not your child’s.’ Those are words no husband ever wants to hear.’: Miracle preemie survives despite mom’s HELLP diagnosis, emergency surgery

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“‘We’re doing the surgery to save your wife’s life, not your child’s.’ Those are words no husband ever wants to hear, but on the afternoon of June 2, 2018, that’s exactly what the doctor said to mine. I was only 29+2 weeks and we were about to meet our third child and second daughter. We were not ready, she was not ready, but it was about to happen.

My first two pregnancies and births were normal. I was tired, had morning sickness that lasted all day, vomited every day, and had ridiculous indigestion. All typical symptoms of a pregnancy. My first baby came after 44 hours of labor and an hour of pushing. This was followed by my second baby which was only six hours of labor and 10 minutes of pushing. I was sure my third baby would fall out in the car on our way to the hospital. What I didn’t imagine was that I would end up in the hospital on June 1 in excruciating pain. Pain that I ignored and convinced myself was just gas pain; another common pregnancy issue.

Husband and wife sit smiling outside in photoshoot
Jennifer Tara Photography

When our second child was turning 2 years old, we made the decision to try for one more child. We purposely had the first two very close together. They are 20 months apart and although it is working out well now, I thought it was going to kill us in the beginning. That is why we waited longer before trying for a third and final child.

There were a few minor issues early on that elevated this pregnancy to ‘high risk.’ A sub chorionic bleed at 11 weeks and the diagnosis of a marginal umbilical cord insertion at 20 weeks. Although these issues required additional attention to be paid to me and the baby, neither caused any real concern by the doctors. Everything was going fine as I entered my third trimester. I was extremely sick with this pregnancy between indigestion and vomiting, but overall the baby was doing well and on track for growth. That all changed on May 30th.

Pregnant woman stands smiling while holding stomach in mirror selfie
Courtesy of Jessie Moore

I was experiencing a lot of pain in the center of my stomach towards the top of my pregnancy tummy. I assumed I needed to go to the bathroom and that it was gas. I did what I could to get through the day and by the afternoon I was feeling better. I went to work again on Thursday, but by Friday the pain had come back. I really wanted to stay home, but I needed to go in for an important meeting. As we women often do, we push our own symptoms aside or minimize them. I managed to get through the day, but on my way home the pain had become unbearable. I started chugging Mylanta, walked around the house, tried yoga poses, basically everything I had done in the past that would alleviate gas pressure. I finally realized that it wasn’t moving, as gas does. At this point I start vomiting more often than was typical for this pregnancy. We needed to go to the hospital. By the time the nurse comes in to take my blood pressure, it was 188/130. The doctor questions the BP machine and has multiple machine brought in. My BP was taken four times and every time it is really that high! No one knew what was wrong with me and they weren’t sure if the pain was causing my blood pressure to elevate or if the pain was because my blood pressure was high.

Lots of tests needed to be run, but in the meantime, they gave me some pain medicine which made me feel amazing! I sent my husband home to take care of the kids and told him to take our son to T-ball practice in the morning before coming to see me because I was fine. In the morning they started talking about gall stones being the culprit, but after the General Surgeon and the Obstetrician spoke, they concluded I had something called HELLP syndrome. (A diagnosis that my amazing nurse and close friend had already assumed.) HELLP syndrome is a life-threatening pregnancy complication usually considered to be a variant of preeclampsia. HELLP stands for: H (hemolysis, which is the breaking down of red blood cells), EL (elevated liver enzymes), LP (low platelet count).

Over the next few hours they did everything they could to control my BP, but nothing was working. Since my BP was so high, I was also put on magnesium to stop me from having a seizure or stroke. By now we had learned the pain I was experiencing in the center of my chest was my liver shutting down. High blood pressure, vomiting, chest pain, as well as the headaches and swelling I had been experiencing for weeks but ignoring. These were all symptoms that came together to make a diagnosis.

I don’t know if it was hours or minutes, but there was a whirlwind of nurses, doctors, and God knows who else in my room. One minute I was going to be taken by ambulance an hour away to another hospital with hopes of keeping the baby in a bit longer. The Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital in Westchester had a level IV NICU and the hospital I was currently in was only a level II. If my baby were to be born at this time, she would need more care than they could offer. The next I knew, I was no longer going to the other hospital because the ambulance refused to take me. They said that I was ‘too unstable’ to travel. I was immediately prepped for a C-section and once delivered, my little girl would be flown by helicopter to Westchester. The only thing to do to save my life was deliver the baby, and before going in for surgery we had to be told her expected survival rate. This was something I never needed to be told with my previous deliveries.

I lost it. I never cried as hard as I did when the doctor told me I was about to deliver my daughter. At that moment, I completely lost control of my emotions and all I could do was beg the doctor not to do this. ‘She’s too small! It’s too soon!’ That was all I kept saying. I had been very calm up to this point but now I was hysterically crying and praying along with my husband who I’m not sure I had ever seen cry prior to this. I asked the doctor to wait for my mother who was in the parking lot. You can’t perform surgery before she sees me. As a mother now, I could never do that to another. I relaxed at this point. The calmest I’ve ever been in my life. I don’t know what came over me, but at that moment I knew if I didn’t relax, I was going to die, and so was my baby. I started to become the voice of reason in a room full of chaos. Calming and reassuring my husband and mother. Even laughing at the irony that I had been working on New York State maternal mortality data for the past month at work. I knew exactly how many women died as a result of childbirth last year. It’s humor and sarcasm that gets me through things like this.

They took out my baby and rushed her to the back of the room without saying much. But I heard her cry. I knew if you can cry, then you can breathe. That helped me get through the next few minutes because nobody was telling me anything. My mother was trying to get information for me, but I told her to leave them alone because they were keeping my baby alive. I would find out information later. As soon as I was able to catch a glimpse of my baby and I knew that she was OK, I told the anesthesiologist that I couldn’t be here anymore. I don’t know what he gave me in my IV, but whatever it was, knocked me out while they stitched me back together. I woke up just a short amount of time later in the recovery room and was told I could see my baby. I don’t remember a lot from this time but eventually I was brought in to the NICU to see my daughter who was hooked up to a lot of wires and tubes, but she was alive and weighed in at 2 lbs. 7 oz. and was 15 1/2 inches long. They let me take some pictures of her and I could touch her foot. I learned not to rub her because it doesn’t feel good on the skin. It was too overstimulating and instead I was to only place my hand onto her.

Mother with HELLP smiles with husband as they watch over newborn in NICU
Courtesy of Jessie Moore
Preemie baby in NICU being held in woman's hands
Courtesy of Jessie Moore

A few minutes later a team in red jumpsuits arrived. They were with the helicopter and they were here to take my baby. I told my husband to get in his truck and follow the helicopter and to stay with our baby. At this time, I wondered if I should call in a minister to baptize her in case she didn’t survive. Then I decided against it, because my brain thought if I baptize her, then she will definitely die. I remember they kept calling her Baby Girl Moore. I remember the last thing I said before the team left with her was that her name was Leah, please call her Leah. I felt that if they knew her by her first name that it made her real person and they would fight harder to keep her alive. It’s just all the crazy stuff that goes through your head in a whirlwind.

Preemie lays in NICU under blue light with bandage wrapped around her head
Courtesy of Jessie Moore

The next few days are pretty much a blur. It took a while to control my blood pressure and the magnesium really messes with your brain. Being in the hospital, but not having a baby to take care of, brings on weird emotions. Even though my brain knew to use this time to rest and heal, my brain kept thinking I needed to be with my baby. Leaving the hospital without my baby was painful. There was no excitement as I had experienced when going home with my first 2 children. Instead it was fear of the unknown and a massive desire to get to my baby as soon as possible. I didn’t cry for a few days, but I did cry when I came home and saw my older children for the first time in days. The first thing they asked me was if they could say hi to Leah in my belly. We hadn’t told them yet. I let them talk to my empty belly. This broke my heart and the tears began to flow.

I managed to get through every day by focusing on taking care of my older children in the mornings and evenings and traveling over an hour every day to the NICU to sit with Leah. I treasured being there for her care because I could take her temperature, change her diaper, and almost feel like a normal mom. But every night, when the older two went to bed, I would sit on the couch and all the strength I had to get through the day would disappear. All I wanted was to be sitting there, watching TV with Leah resting on my chest. Instead, I sat there playing solitaire and word games on my phone. Calling the NICU at 9:30 exactly to check on her status and see if she gained any weight that day. I felt like a waste.

Preemie lays in NICU connected to monitors while woman's hands hold head and foot
Courtesy of Jessie Moore

This experience was the worst thing that I have ever gone through, but the amount of love and excitement I felt every morning that I walked into that NICU and saw my sweet baby cannot even be put into words. I never saw her as small, frail, fragile or any other adjectives that were used to describe her. I saw the strongest girl that I had ever met. I saw a beautiful, happy, strong warrior. I melted into the chair with her on my bare chest every day.

Woman smiles in selfie while holding preemie baby tight to her chest
Courtesy of Jessie Moore

This experience did a lot of things. It showed me just how strong and amazing my husband truly is, it showed me how supportive my family is, it showed me who my real friends were, but it also showed me who I don’t need in my life. The ones that weren’t there or made this time about them. This time was about Leah, not even me, just her.

Older brother and sister lay on white carpet holding preemie sibling
Jennifer Tara Photography

I didn’t get to see my baby until she was 3 days old. I didn’t get to hold her for 12 days. I didn’t get to feed her for 32 days. But at day 56, I was able to bring her home 3 weeks shy of her due date. She was just under 5 pounds and was remarkably healthy. She was small but strong. The strongest person that I have ever met.”

Husband and wife with newborn swaddled to her chest sit outside on bench with their young son and daughter
Jennifer Tara Photography

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Jessie Moore, 34, of Middletown, New York. Have you experienced something similar? We’d like to hear your journey. Submit your own story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.

Read similar stories from other moms here:

‘My husband and I arrived at the hospital to await our baby’s arrival. I had no idea the very bed I was settling in would soon become my death bed.’

‘I heard this noise – a crackling noise coming from my lungs. The moment I realized my lungs sounded like Rice Krispies, my monitor started blaring. I was drowning in my own fluid. Literally.’

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